It’s increasingly common to see universities publishing press releases about newly published papers from academics. This practice emerged a few decades ago and originally seemed to be associated with health and medical research (educated guess, not sure there are any data on this).
But it has since spread more widely to many other disciplines. Ecology journals are now doing it; some ask you to submit a mandatory media summary with your manuscript ‘just in case’ (most authors will never get a media request). Some of the Big Famous journals operate on a strict authoritarian embargo system, to ensure the author doesn’t exercise their right to talk to people about their own research.
The lure of the press release has also gone beyond published papers at some universities. I’ve seen universities do press releases because an academic posted a preprint (sometimes with diastrous consquequences), because an academic became a handling editor at a journal, and because an academic attended a conference. We already know that we need more journalists and communications professionals with specialist science training, but this also raises some interesting questions about the goals of science PR.
What exactly is the purpose of a press release?
A press release is a company announcement. It’s organisation-centric, not issue-centric, and it is designed to promote specific events or statements from the organisation. Press releases are inherently biased to promote an entity, not a broader issue or body of knowledge. This doesn’t mean the facts are automatically incorrect or that they should be ignored, but it does mean a reader needs to interpret the release with this bias in mind.
It also makes you think about whether press releases are appropriate for communicating scientific papers. Aside from the debate over whether a piece of research ‘belongs’ to the researchers or the institution they work at (not the scope of this post), I think there is an obvious conundrum here.
New papers (even the big data analyses that claim global generalisation) are just a tiny piece in a bigger puzzle of knowledge. No single paper is the answer to All The Problems.
We would be wary if we saw a researcher on social media claiming that their latest paper was The Answer…no more research needed. Yet this is exactly how academic press releases generally frame research outputs in an effort to achieve what press releases need to do: promote the organisation and get media attention.
Many of you are probably agreeing with me that press releases unnecessarily exaggerate scientific research, but we all buy into it. Imagine seeing a release that said “Dr X has published a new paper that suggests that butterfly species Y might be influenced by a range of environment factors, but the effect on the population likely depends on the interaction between the time of year adults lay eggs and the land use history of the place they lay eggs.”
You would probably roll your eyes, the same way you would at the press release announcing that Dr Z attended a conference.
But if it read “Dr X’s research has proven that global butterflies are rapidly mutating because of agriculture!”, we’d all click through.
Of course I’m not criticising the concept of press releases, and most researchers would love it if their institution’s press office showed regular interest in their research.
But the global dominance of digital content is increasing, not decreasing. Commercial news media organisations are increasingly (not always ethically) relying on verbatim reproduction of press releases, instead of funding actual journalism.
Examples abound of research results being exaggerated and misrepresented in popular media, and these examples can nearly always be traced back to an institutional press release, from the Insect Apocalypse, to medical cures or disease-causing agents.
Another common mistake press releases make is to present standard opinion or synthesis articles (which simply summarise disciplinary knowledge that has been established for years) as ground-breaking ‘new discoveries’. Even if these press releases get all the facts accurate, they still misrepresent the process of science – one paper, one researcher, does not solve all the problems single-handedly in a vacuum.
In keeping with my argument, this post is not here to solve any problems or recommend any particular solutions. I’m not specifically arguing for or against press releases. I used to work in corporate comms, of course I appreciate the value of a good press release.
But I am musing about their role in effective science communication. With the increasing influence of academic blogs and social media, more scientists are taking broader communication of their research into their own hands, often providing more nuance than a press release. What’s the future for the science paper press release?
© Manu Saunders 2020